Six-figure Salaries Are a Pipe Dream for Most Koreans

  • By Chosun Ilbo columnist Kim Ki-cheon

    December 23, 2010 12:57

    CNN recently listed six jobs that pay six-figure salaries but do not require college diplomas -- fire chiefs, air traffic controllers, nuclear power station managers, directors of security, elevator mechanics and court reporters. The news was widely reported in Korea, and interest in those jobs soared judging by the number of Internet searches. The list would have been of prime interest to young Koreans, who face tough college entrance exams and an even tougher job market.

    But the jobs are anything but a cakewalk. In reality, a lot of people who work in those professions in the U.S. do have college degrees, or they require job-training courses that are as every bit as tough as university courses, physically demanding and highly stressful. In addition to intense competition, years of experience are required to achieve such a position. Even in the U.S., a six-figure salary is not easy to come by.

    In Korea, a six-figure -- actually nine-figure or W100 million -- annual salary is every worker's dream. Every college graduate preparing for a job interview and every office worker either wants a stable, full-time job or a W100 million annual salary. In most conglomerates, only executives get that kind of pay. As a result, a W100 million salary has become the symbol of success. This perception has led to a large number of how-to books being published on achieving it.

    According to the National Tax Service, 197,000 Koreans made more than W100 million last year, and more than 1,000 people made more than W1 billion. The number of people making six-figure salaries increased more than 12-fold over the last decade from 15,000 in 1999. That explosive growth cannot be explained simply by factors like economic growth and the effects of inflation. In the finance and insurance industries, one out of every 10 workers earns a six-figure salary.

    Still, it remains a dream for most office workers. There are 4.51 million people in Korea who make less than W10 million a year. The ratio of low-paid workers who make less than half of the median income rose from 9.3 percent of all workers in 1995 to 12.4 percent last year. The nation is seeing a polarized salary structure with people earning six-figure salaries on one side and those making low wages on the other. The government needs to come up with measures to deal with the worsening wage disparity and consequent social tensions.

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